OPERA NEWS - Out of the Shadows
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Out of the Shadows

Korngold's Tote Stadt, being staged this month at Dallas Opera, has finally come into its own on the international opera stage. ERIC MYERS ponders its resemblance to another long-misunderstood work, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.

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James Stewart and Kim Novak as Scottie and Madeleine in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, 1958
© Paramount Pictures/Photofest 2014

On December 4, 1920, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's third opera, Die Tote Stadt, was accorded rare treatment in the world of lyric theater — a simultaneous, double premiere, with separate performances taking place in Cologne and Hamburg. Rapturously received, it went on to be staged to international acclaim throughout the 1920s, particularly in the German-speaking world, until such Jewish "degenerate" music was stamped out by the Third Reich.

Nearly forty years later, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo was released. Audiences were not entirely sure what to make of it, and the critical reaction was mixed. "One of the most fascinating love stories ever filmed," proclaimed The Hollywood Reporter,while Time magazine dismissed it as "another Hitchcock-and-bull story." Though not a box-office flop, it came nowhere near matching the receipts of Hitchcock's earlier 1950s hits Rear Window and To Catch a Thief,and the only Oscar nominations Vertigo received that year were for Art Direction and Sound. 

Both of these masterworks needed time to be properly evaluated. Two important revivals of Die Tote Stadt in the 1970s and '80s — Frank Corsaro's at New York City Opera and Götz Friedrich's for Berlin's Deutsche Oper — as well as its first complete recording, were instrumental in restoring the opera's luster. And Vertigo, long kept unavailable for re-release by Hitchock, was returned to public view in 1983. It is now deemed one of Hitchcock's greatest and most personal films; it has earned a place on the National Film Registry and turns up on many critics' lists of the ten best films of all time.

Vertigo and Die Tote Stadt, though separated by many decades, treat the same theme: a man, mourning the death of the woman he loved, finds himself ensnared and ultimately obsessed by a new woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to the dead one. Both works were based on novels that are practically forgotten today; both required a genius to give them lasting life. 

It all leads back to the Belgian Symbolist author and poet Georges Rodenbach and his novella Bruges-la-morte, which attracted a considerable following when it was published in 1892. Surprisingly modern in the minimalism of its storytelling, it makes the decaying city of Bruges into one of its three central characters. The other two are Hugues Viane, a widower who cannot shake the memory of his dead wife, and Jane, a dancer who physically resembles the wife but is a different, coarser spirit altogether. They begin an affair, but Jane taunts Hugues mercilessly over his devotion to his wife, to the point that he winds up strangling her with a braid of his wife's hair that he keeps as a relic. Though rich in atmosphere, the story of Hugues and Jane is told by Rodenbach in a detached, almost clinical manner, emphasizing Hugues's sense of solitude as he wanders desultorily along Bruges's dank canals and misty streets. In this sense, it foreshadows both James Joyce's Ulysses and the French nouveau roman that would flourish during the post-World War II era in the hands of such authors as Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet. 

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Ann Petersen in the Danish National Opera production of Die
Tote Stadt
, 2010

© Danish National Opera/Anders Bach 2014

Rodenbach went on to turn his novel into a play entitled Le Mirage, and the great Russian pre-Soviet director Yevgenyi Bauer made a striking 1915 silent-film version under the title Daydreams

When Erich Wolfgang Korngold chose Bruges-la-morte as the basis for Die Tote Stadt nearly twenty-five years after its publication, the world had been through the Great War, not to mention the rise of psychology as exemplified by Freud in Korngold's native Austria. Vienna, where Korngold lived, had become permeated with Freudian thinking since the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899. Operas by Richard Strauss and Franz Schreker had introduced new levels of violence and sexual obsession to the stage, with music that was spectacularly sensual and even shocking. Not surprisingly, Bruges-la-morte was transformed by Korngold's gifts. Hugues and Jane became the more singable Paul and Marietta, and their febrile affair turned out to be a dream, one that would lead Paul to renounce his obsession and get on with his life. Rather than being a disappointing cop-out, the surprise dream ending enriched what had preceded it and was fully in keeping with a city and an era that put new weight on the significance of dreams. (The current trend among directors is to subvert Korngold's hopeful conclusion. In Götz Friedrich's production, Paul raised a revolver to his temple to blow his brains out, which sat uneasily against Korngold's sweetly optimistic final bars.)

Today, Die Tote Stadt is far better-known than Bruges-la-morte, enhanced as it is by Korngold's highly evocative score and the acute dramatic sensibility that would eventually make Korngold the greatest of all film composers. Mikael Melbye, director of the production that opens at Dallas Opera on March 21, notes, "It's almost as if your imagination is being prodded by Korngold in a way that the novel doesn't. The novel is very much of its time, but Korngold truly keeps you on the edge of your seat." 

Films that shared Die Tote Stadt's plotline of a man obsessed by a dead woman proved popular in Hollywood during the 1940s. Detective Dana Andrews fell in love with the portrait of Gene Tierney, whom he believed had been murdered, in Otto Preminger's elegant film noir Laura (1944). And Hitchcock made his entry into American movies with his highly lauded version of Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca (1940), in which Maxim de Winter's first wife dominates the action, although she never appears, having been killed before the story begins. 

We'll probably never know whether Hitchcock was at all familiar with Die Tote Stadt or with Bruges-la-morte. But his Vertigo was based on Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac's 1954 crime novel D'Entre les Morts (From Among the Dead), which bore remarkable similarities to Rodenbach's book. Here, the protagonist, an acrophobic Parisian detective, falls in love with a mysterious, suicidal woman. When she appears to succeed in killing herself, he has a breakdown and, years later, meets another woman who is her double. He becomes obsessed with her, and when the truth is revealed to him — that the two women are one and the same, and he has been duped as an unwitting accomplice in an elaborate murder plot — he strangles her. In the book's final scene, he gazes down at her lifeless body, just before the police take him off, and whispers, "I shall wait for you."

Told in spare, methodical prose, D'Entre les Morts carries little of the emotional punch of Vertigo. Its characters seem underdeveloped, and today it is of interest mainly as the basis for Hitchock's film, and also for its setting in Paris just before and at the end of the Nazi occupation. Hitchcock contemporized the story and moved it to San Francisco, which at the time was seldom used for location filming, and he exploited the city's air of romance and mystery. With James Stewart and Kim Novak in career-defining performances, Vertigo was unlike anything that Hollywood had ever turned out. Not only did it seem to be taking place in a dream; it had a startling tragic ending — a rarity in films of that era. Scored by Bernard Herrmann with themes that evoked Wagner's unresolved chord in Tristan und Isolde, Vertigo emerged as a consummate work of art that far outstripped the novel that inspired it.

That Herrmann score was one of the elements that spurred director Günter Krämer to conceive a memorable series of Die Tote Stadt stagings for Düsseldorf, Spoleto and Cologne Opera during the 1990s. Without slavishly copying Vertigo, he chose to stress the similarities of the two works in his productions. "Die Tote Stadt is an opera I like very much," he says. "First I did it in Düsseldorf, but I increased the Hitchcock atmosphere in Spoleto and Cologne. As you know, Korngold was a very famous composer for films, and he was from the same era as Bernard Herr­mann.

Krämer was not specific as to era in his concept, but he did turn his Marie/Marietta into a very accurate re-creation of Kim Novak as Vertigo's Madeleine — down to the gray Edith Head suit and the blonde hair in a chignon. And he also re-created one of Vertigo's most memorable moments — when Novak, as Judy Barton, emerges from the shadows of a dark room into a greenish, neon-cast light, having fully assumed the look of Scottie's beloved Madeleine. "It is almost as if she is coming from the world of the dead," says Krämer, consciously or unconsciously echoing the title of the original novel. "The female character in Die Tote Stadt is a bit of a cliché. For me, the character of Paul is much deeper and more interesting. Therefore I was thinking it would be good to bring in this feeling of Hitchcock to give a deeper, more complex atmosphere of a man in obsession. I tried to have a little bit the atmosphere of that contrast between the Madonna and the prostitute. This is all that kind of European perception of Woman from the late nineteenth century — devil or angel. The opera used these two extremes. I wanted to bring both elements into this character, as Hitchcock was able to do in his film." To clinch the Hitchcock–Korngold connection, Krämer went so far as to take the character of Paul's housemaid, Brigitta, and make her a dead ringer for Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's film version of Rebecca. 

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Stewart and Novak in Vertigo
© Sunset Boulevard/Corbis 2014

For his Dallas production, first staged in Denmark, Melbye will emphasize the oneiric aspect of the plot. "So little of the opera actually takes place in real time," he remarks. "We are inside Paul's head for most of it. I needed to create some kind of language which I could use in order to make this clear. Wendall Harrington, the American video specialist, whom I've done many productions with, worked with me on this to make many layers of video projections on multiple screens. The singers can actually walk in between several projections. Wendall is a genius with this." Melbye will bring Freud himself onstage in the figure of Paul's friend Frank. "You will see Frank both as Paul's friend and as his therapist, which creates tremendous turmoil within Paul."

Die Tote Stadt has had many international productions in recent years, and the evidence is now incontrovertible: this opera has at last attained repertoire status. Despite its stringent demands on singers and musicians; despite the efforts of the Nazis to quash it; despite the postwar musical establishment that rejected its late-Romantic lushness, it has been embraced by contemporary audiences. Like Vertigo,it seems to be back to stay. spacer 

ERIC MYERS is the author of three books. He has contributed articles to Playbill, Time Out New York and The New York Times Magazine and Arts and Leisure Section. 

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